§ Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
§ Mr. Wilshire
On a point of order, Miss Boothroyd. I ask you to clarify which clause 12 we are considering. It seems from what I heard this morning that the consideration and amendment of the original clause 12 in Standing Committee was out of order because the appropriate formalities had not been completed. Are we considering the original clause 12 or the amended clause 12?
§ The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Miss Betty Boothroyd)
We are considering clause 12 in the recommitted Bill, which was amended in Standing Committee C. It is clause 12, at line 25 on page 7. I hope that all hon. Members understand that.
§ Mr. Squire
I am pleased that you gave that ruling, Miss Boothroyd, otherwise the time that I spent in preparation might have proved to be wasted.
When I spoke earlier today I declared what was probably an irrelevant financial interest. I declare now a non-pecuniary but relevant interest, which is that I have the honour of being one of the vice-presidents of the Institution of Environmental Health. As a glance at clause 12 will show, that esteemed body will be responsible for administering, at council level, the duties that the Bill imposes, and especially those set out in clause 12.
Like other hon. Members, I raced for a copy of the report of the proceedings in Standing Committee to digest what was said on clause 12. It would be fair to say that it was something less than a satisfactory meal. It seems that the debate lasted for about 30 seconds, and that that time was spent applying the clause to Northern Ireland. I find today that there are amendments to delete Northern Ireland, so perhaps the Standing Committee proceedings were unnecessary.
The clause is concerned with the Consumer Protection Act 1987 and its application to the Bill. I have a few questions and comments to put to my hon. Friend the Minster or to the promoter, the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), whoever is the appropriate person to respond to them.
The apparent effect of the clause is that trading standards authorities would be under a statutory duty to enforce the provisions of the Bill by reason of the 846 application of section 27 in part IV of the Consumer Protection Act 1987. I stress that: I shall return to the words "statutory duty". I would appreciate some assistance from my hon. Friend the Minister, but it seems that the Secretary of State, who is included in the definition of an enforcement authority in section 45(1) of the Act, would have enforcement powers, but not a duty to enforce.
Will the Minister give us an idea of how he expects the Secretary of State to exercise what, on the face of it, is a discretion rather than a duty? I hope that hon. Members perceive the distinction. We can all see how duties can be exercised and can be set out; Secretaries of State are clearly answerable under a number of Acts. When powers but not duties are laid down, however, a Minister may presumably choose to ignore a vote in the House and say, "I personally have no wish to exercise those powers, and I will not exercise them."
The power of enforcement appears to be exercisable in relation to the Bill generally, but the Bill creates civil rights and obligations. For instance, clause 8, which deals with the enforceability of guarantees, obviously does not deal with a criminal offence. The Bill therefore covers both civil rights and criminal offences. Surely it is not appropriate for trading standards authorities to seek to enforce civil rights: that would introduce a whole new concept into law. Is the intention for the authorities to limit their enforcement activities to possible criminal offences? That is the logical interpretation, but it is not how the Bill is currently drafted.
Let us assume that that is the intention. It is unclear to what extent—if at all—some of the provisions of part IV of the 1987 Act would be applied for the purpose of enforcing the criminal provisions in the Bill. There are two reasons for my uncertainty. First, many of the provisions apply only for the purpose of enforcing specific parts of the 1987 Act. That is not unusual: often legislation contains unique aspects specifically designed to ensure that it works properly. Is it intended that the provisions of the Bill should be included in all the references to those specific parts?
Secondly, many of the enforcement proceedings in part IV of the Act—for example, the power of customs officers to seize and detain imported goods in section 31—are inherently unsuitable for use in enforcing the provisions of the Bill. There are other provisions that cannot be applied without modification; I shall not go into the details, but that requires careful thought. Examples are sections 29(2), (3), (6) and (7). None of the provisions in part V of the Act is applied. A provision restricting the disclosure of information on the lines of section 38 would also be needed. Those points are important, but, for reasons at which I can only guess—as I was not a member of the Standing Committee—the Committee did not discuss them. A provision concerning the service of documents, on the lines of section 44 of the Act, would presumably also be needed.
So far I have concentrated on what I consider to be the defects in the clause as it is currently drafted. As we are already in Committee and have had relatively little opportunity to table amendments, we must either ask for a response from the Minister or hope for amendments to be tabled in the other place.
We must be clear about the Minister's response. It is fairly standard practice—every hon. Member has 847 encountered it in Committee—for a Minister to say, "I accept the principle," or "I accept the need for change, but the wording is not right,"—or a variation on that—and promise to table amendments later. Clearly my hon. Friend will not have the opportunity to table amendments today, but I press him strongly to accept my concerns if he considers them valid, and to instruct those in another place to table the appropriate amendments.
Clause 12 is arguably one of the most important clauses because it deals with enforcement. Even with the best of intentions, if there is no enforcement the Bill will fail in its aims. Of course, we are here primarily to discuss the money aspect and the impact of the clause on local authorities and environmental health officers. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) referred to the impact on the community charge because a statutory duty is being placed on local authorities. It is not an option; it is a statutory duty. When the Committee discussed clause 12 in February, it was before the surge of correspondence on the community charge. Regardless of hon. Members' views about the community charge——
§ Mr. Squire
Indeed, some call it the poll tax. I have been rather more outspoken than some, but no one can deny that there has been a surge of interest, almost an obsession among the public about the size of their community charge bills compared with those of other people. The provisions of clause 12 will directly increase the amount of community charge. I cannot speak for other hon. Members, but I have not yet received any letters saying, "Please make the community charge higher." Some people have used rather stronger language than that, but they certainly did not suggest that it should be increased. Indeed, they strongly suggested that it should be lower.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister or the Bill's promoter can explain the impact of clause 12 on staffing levels. That matter was not debated in Committee, but as it imposes a statutory duty it is important to know the consequences. On Second Reading, the promoter, the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West—whom I congratulate on his manner—said that each year14 million people are dissatisfied with products 2026;"—presumably those figures came from the National Consumer Council—and only half will have their problems resolved."—[Official Report, 26 January 1990; Vol. 165, c. 1174.]That means that 7 million people are dissatisfied.
§ Mrs. Gorman
Does my hon. Friend really believe that there are 7 million complaints each year? Is it a genuine figure or is it made up, having been extrapolated from a much smaller number by virtue of the number of people in the population? I cannot think of an organisation that could handle that number of complaints.
§ Mr. Squire
My hon. Friend puts me on the spot. I am taking in good faith what the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West said on Second Reading. I cannot account for his figures, but I am sure that when he speaks he will give the points of reference that my hon. Friend rightly seeks to establish.
I have no idea how many of those 7 million dissatisfied people would take the matter further and complain to trading standards officers or what action would then follow. Let us suppose that 10 per cent. of complainants are so upset that they pursue matters with their local 848 environmental health officers. One is then talking of 700,000 new cases each year—I can answer my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) to that extent—involving a statutory duty to act. Environmental health officers will have no option but to attend to those complaints. They cannot say, "We would like to do so, but those complaints are not a matter of priority."
There are 400 local authorities in this country, and right hon. and hon. Members can calculate for themselves the extra work load that will be placed on members of the institution of which I have the honour to be a vice-president. I calculate that each local authority will have to deal with an additional 1,500 cases per year, with major implications not only for the Consolidated Fund but for local authorities, and therefore for the community charges that they make.
I do not know what priority local authorities would give to such complaints. I confess that I have not spoken to the institution in that respect, so the following are my views alone. If one considers three of the important duties of environmental health officers, one's concern begins to increase. EHOs are required, for example, to certify whether a house is in such a bad state of disrepair that no one should be expected to live in it. That is a critical responsibility, and I should not want to see anything else take precedence over it. EHOs are also called upon to deal with complaints about excessive noise, and with the whole subject of food safety and public health—which the public acknowledge as a proper responsibility of local authorities and of the members of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers who undertake it. How are EHOs expected to cope with all that work and investigate an additional 1,500 cases—and that may be an underestimate—per year? I know from my involvement in the institution and from my previous political life as a local councillor that there remains a significant national shortage of properly qualified personnel to fill the role of environmental health officers.
If politics is about priorities, we must ask ourselves whether it is right to place the new responsibilities introduced by clause 12 on people who are becoming more important by the month. I spend a great deal of time travelling around the country to give talks on environmental issues. The points that I have made are brought to my attention time and again by the public. It is seldom that people complain to me as dissatisfied customers. The number who do so is tiny by comparison with those who say, "Please do something to reduce the hellish noise that I have to suffer in my flat," or ask, "Are the products that we eat or drink safe?"
I want answers from my hon. Friend the Minister on the questions that I asked earlier, and a response from the Bill's promoter on the points that I put to him. If their responses satisfy me, I am prepared to move on, to debate the other amendments to which I referred.
§ Mr. Wilshire
I am relieved that the procedural matters are behind us, so that we can turn at last to a Bill, the objectives and principles of which have had the support of people right across the political spectrum from the very beginning. I hope that we may now make progress.
We must sort out three things in our minds. First, we must take account of the fact that this is a Committee of the whole House. Therefore, for the benefit of those not party to our earlier deliberations we must clarify exactly what clause 12 seeks to do. Secondly, at no stage during 849 the deliberations of the Standing Committee did we give any thought to public expenditure in the context of the objectives of the Bill. Having let procedural matters go through so rapidly, it would be improper to allow what appears to be £1 million to go through without careful scrutiny. Thirdly, we must ask ourselves whether, as a Committee of the whole House, we are justified to try to put right at the 11th hour matters that there has been plenty of time to put right before now.
First, we should be clear about the exact meaning of clause 12. As my hon. Friend the Member for Horncastle (Mr. Squire) said earlier, it will give trading standards authorities a new statutory duty. My hon. Friend was talking about opportunity to do things, but in this context we are talking about a duty that will be required of those authorities and if they are in dereliction of that duty the public will have a right to require action to be taken. Little discretion is involved. If we go down that track, as sure as day follows night, public expenditue will be incurred. It is crucial to understand the powers that we are giving to those authorities.
Section 39 of the Act concerns the all reasonable steps defence. That is right and proper and I do not quarrel with it. If one is hauled up before a trading standards authority it is proper to say, "I did my best." Section 40 says that if the law is broken one can take action against a second person as well as the principal person involved. I also think that that is a sensible technicality. Before dealing with technicalities of that sort, however, we must return to the principle which is at stake in clause 12.
I can identify the following principles. Given all the debate about local government at the moment, should we be giving local government, via clause 12, yet another job, whether funded or not?
§ Mr. Wilshire
I am known throughout the House for my generosity, and I willingly give way to Labour Whips as well as to Whips on my own side if they wish to break their silence.
If I can gather my wits rather than my Whips about me, should we be giving local government yet another job when we are not sure where the money is to come from? Secondly, are the trading standards authorities the right enforcers for this? My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch touched on that and I will develop the argument in a moment. Thirdly, has the trading standards authority been consulted? I will explain in a moment why I ask that question.
Is it right for the House to give local government yet another job? Before I came to the House, I spent 11 years as a councillor in local government. That experience has made me wary of what appears to be a habit of all Governments of whatever persuasion, and the promoter of the Bill is falling prey to the same dangerous habit. Time and again, they decide that something is a good idea, approve the principle, shunt it off to local government and blame local government if it goes wrong. That concerns me 850 greatly. Local government is already in difficulty as a result of the tasks given to it. Many local authorities have difficulty repairing houses within a reasonable period. Shoving yet another task on to them means that they will not be able to tackle fundamental problems.
There is great debate about overspending by local authorities and it is undeniable that many local authorities are unjustifiably spending far too much money. For different reasons, all parties are critical of local government expenditure and the question is being examined by people of all political persuasions. It is therefore essential to ask whether we should add to local authorities' expenditure in this way.
It is also necessary to consider whether the trading standards authorities ought to enforce the provisions of the Bill. I served on a county council and a public protection committee. Trading standards officers of great quality, ability and enthusiasm have been involved in the enforcement of the criminal law. Parliament specifies the penalties. Trading standards officers have the role of policemen in local government and enforce the criminal law. If they are given the powers provided in the Bill, we shall for the first time be turning then into enforcers of civil rights. That would be very dangerous. It would muddle their role of enforcing the criminal law with the enforcement of civil rights and local government would be given a role for which it is not well suited.
What are trading standards authorities to do if they are given the dual role of enforcing both the criminal law and civil rights? Are they to take the view that their true role is to deal with the criminal law, ignore the civil rights bit and all will be well? If so they would overlook the point that I made earlier—that they will have a statutory duty to enforce everything, not just to enforce the bits that they think appropriate while ignoring all the others. We should be setting a dangerous precedent if we provided local government officers with such powers.
We must also inquire into whether the trading standards authorities have been consulted. I should not have bothered to raise the matter, but for something that came to light in Committee. We were told by the British Radio and Electronic Equipment Manufacturers Association that it was not consulted about the Bill, yet that association represents some of the leading high street names in terms of manufacturers of radio and electronic equipment. BREEMA wrote to the National Consumer Council on 8 November:The Members expressed surprise that the Association was not consulted during the preparation of the report as their goods are specifically mentioned and they would have been able to offer useful and practical advice, since it is clearly both in their interests and in the interests of the public to have a scheme which is a workable proposition.That was an example that we heard of in Committee of an interested party not being consulted.
We must therefore find out whether the trading standards authorities have been consulted and, if so, whether they are worried about civil rights, whether they believe that they will be able to enforce everything in the Bill or whether they believe that only certain powers should be given to them. I should like some answers. We have to consider which parts could be enforced. I am not a lawyer, but I have some more questions about the detail of part IV. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Minister is a lawyer or whether he could get some legal advice, but my hon. Friend the Minister, the promoter of the Bill or someone else might like to intervene to explain 851 whether the whole of part IV, which we are seeking to include, is suitable for the Bill. Is it applicable to the objectives of the Bill and is it enforceable by trading standard authorities? I am not a lawyer, but I gather that there are some doubts about whether the whole of part IV is suitable, applicable or enforceable. Before we vote on the clause, we should consult somebody who can clarify whether that is the case.
Bearing in mind that I have still not heard an answer all these hours later as to whether it is only clause 12 of the Bill which requires a money resolution, can somebody please tell me whether part IV is the only part that is relevant or are we going to find at some subsequent date that parts of other Acts should have been brought in? As there has been so much confusion in the past we need that to be cleared up. Because we have a money resolution and because, contrary to what we were told at the outset, we now know that public expenditure is involved, we have to discuss that. It is wholly irresponsible for us to wave aside money in the hope of getting a measure on to the statute book because its objectives are laudable.
§ Mr. Squire
Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Committee had met when things were as lively as they seem to be at the moment every right hon. and hon. Member on the Committee would have known about the high profile of the community charge or poll tax, and had they known that the money resolution was necessary they would have given clause 12 much greater attention than we have given it today?
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
On a point of order, Miss Boothroyd. Will you confirm that the right time for hon. Members to discuss the money resolution was last night when it went through without any debate? Is this not another example of the way in which hon. Members have deliberately set out to filibuster by not taking things at the right time?
§ Mr. Wilshire
I am grateful for that, Miss Boothroyd, as it is fundamental that we consider the question of expenditure.
§ Mr. Wilshire
If the hon. Gentleman would not try to shout me down, he would get an answer—if he wants an answer rather than having a closed mind, having made his point.
As we have now been told that the clause has financial implications, it is essential that we discuss it. When we considered the Bill in Standing Committee we were told on good authority by the sponsors of the Bill and the people who drafted it that there were no public expenditure requirements. Our discussion in Committee was based on the fact that no part of the Bill involved public expenditure, so I certainly make no apology for saying that last night and this morning the rules have been changed by the House and now that we are in Committee we have to consider whether we should pursue the matter given its financial implications.
852 My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch asked me whether I would care to speculate on the views of other hon. Members, and I would not. If my hon. Friend checks my track record over the years in local government and here, he will know that I consider that every time that there has been any suggestion of the expenditure of public money it is critical that we examine it. I make no apology for that because one of the reasons why we get ourselves into a mess in the town halls and in Parliament is that we do not think hard enough about whether expenditure is justified and whether we have the money to spend in the first place. We must consider public expenditure.
The Minister moved the money resolution last night, so perhaps he can tell me how the sum of £1 million was reached. During my 11 years in local government I became cynical about figures put to me with comments such as, "It's not much", "It really doesn't matter", "We don't mind, do we?" and "It will be all right in the end". As sure as eggs were eggs, in the final accounts for the year the figure was not the same figure or even double—usually it was out of sight because nobody had asked the relevant questions in the first place.
§ 2 pm
§ Mr. Forth
My hon. Friend will appreciate the difficulty for anybody at this stage of estimating the size of an appropriate money resolution because we have not finally formed the Bill. At best it can be only an estimate for the good reason that he gave in Committee—he may want to return to some of these issues—that the details of the substantive clauses and the way in which the Bill may be operated would have a direct effect on the burden on trading standards departments and thus on the size of the money resolution. It is not unreasonable that a best estimate was made. I hope that my hon. Friend will give that some thought and, if I may say so, be a little more charitable and not press the point about the £1 million.
§ Mr. Wilshire
I certainly accept the integrity of those who tried to work out the figure. My experience suggests that sometimes the sum turns out to be greater. We are considering this in good faith, but has the advice of the would-be enforcing authorities been sought? Does the trading standards authority agree that £1 million is a reasonable sum?
Are we justified in trying to put these matters right? We already know that when we reach Report amendments Nos. 133 and 134 are tabled to remove clause 12. In other words, we are being asked now to include clause 12 and to agree public expenditure, when we shall shortly be asked to remove it again. What are we doing? What sort of side show are we running when we start doing strange things like that?
This business of putting the clause in, taking it out and putting it back in again highlights what plagued the Standing Committee stage of the Bill from the beginning. We tried to deal with sloppy drafting and sloppy procedure. This morning we have again been asked to bale out the Bill. So far, we have decided that we should do so, but I still have my doubts. It is probably more sensible to reject clause 12 now and make it crystal clear that no Committee, whether a Standing Committee or a Committee of the whole House, is prepared to have served up to it matters that have not been thought through. No Committee should be expected in one morning to say, "All is forgiven, we shall put it right." 853 Before we go any further we must be clear about important matters of principle. Should we give local government another job? Are the trading standards authorities the right people and have they been consulted? Is using part IV of another Act suitable? Is it applicable to what we are trying to do? Is it the only relevant part of other Acts that we need to consider?
We need to explore the financial issues more thoroughly than we have done. We have heard the Minister's view on whether £1 million is the right sum. We have not yet discussed whether, if £1 million is available and we are prepared to go along this track, this is the best use of that money. I should like to come back to that, if there is an opportunity. There are so many demands on extra money in local government that before we say, "OK—more money to this cause," should we not look at the other demands being placed on local government?
The other issue of finance yet to be mentioned—perhaps the Minister would care to comment on it—is who will provide the extra money. Will central Government put up that £1 million and spread it about? What about Government policy? Do we agree that we should be bearing down on public expenditure? If central Government are not to provide the money, one is bound to ask who will. If the money is to be provided by the local charge payer we are back to the debate about whether community charges should be as high as they are or lower.
Although this is a late hour in our proceedings, there are fundamental questions which must be answered before it would strike me as sensible to allow clause 12 to stand part.
§ Mr. Forth
It might be appropriate and helpful to the Committee if I tried to give some answers to the questions posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). In doing so I shall give some of the background to the money resolution, which has been mentioned and criticised in certain respects.
Clause 12 provides that part IV of the Consumer Protection Act 1987, which gives the basis for enforcement, is to apply in relation to the enforcement of the Bill. The application of part IV of the 1987 Act requires the expenditure of money for a variety of purposes. That is why the money resolution has been tabled. I shall not take the Committee back to the long debate that we had earlier this morning about the resolution.
§ Mr. Ron Davies
This is about the third time the Minister has spoken today. He would command much more respect from the Opposition if he made it abundantly clear that his objective is not to try to sort out the procedural irregularities identified, but to kill the Bill. That is what he is doing. If that is what he intended from the outset, why on earth did he not have the integrity to come to the House on Second Reading to ensure that the Government, who apparently oppose the Bill, brought in their troops to vote it out? He is doing himself no good by carrying on as he is.
§ Mr. Forth
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his advice as to how I should present my public image—presumably he is an expert in such matters. If I want to enrol with his charm school I shall ask him if I might, but, in the meantime, I am entitled to give my explanation to the Committee in response to the questions put by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne.
§ Mr. Bennett
I am sure that the Minister accepts that he spent a lot of time this morning orchestrating his hon. Friends to talk on the procedural motions so that we did not get to the merits of the Bill. It is rather odd that a Government who could guillotine the Social Security Bill could also double the amount of time available to debate the procedural motion before us today. Does the Minister want the Bill or not?
§ Mr. Forth
The hon. Gentleman is right that I spent a lot of time this morning discussing this matter, unlike him. It is regrettable that the hon. Gentleman should come floating in here after 2 pm when we have been here since 9.30 am giving serious and careful consideration to some difficult procedural, substantive matters. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reconsider his case and perhaps cool his temper a little. He should think more carefully before he intervenes again, but I am always happy to give way to him as that helps me enormously.
We were talking about the money resolution and the way in which it underpins the Bill. Earlier we made reference to the fact that the Government and I have used our best endeavours to assist the promoter to reach at least this stage in our proceedings.
My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne asked several questions and I shall go through them as quickly as I can. The enforcement provisions of the Bill put a duty on the weights and measures authorities in Great Britain and the district councils in Northern Ireland. We shall return to Northern Ireland later as an amendment deals with it. That would follow from the application of section 27 in part IV of the Consumer Protection Act. Such a duty would include, except in the case of weights and measures authorities in Scotland, where appropriate, bringing criminal proceedings for offences under the Bill.
Enforcement authorities would have various powers—for example, to make test purchases and carry out searches—as a result of the application of part IV of the Consumer Protection Act. An enforcement authority includes the Secretary of State and any other Minister of the Crown in charge of a Government Department and any such Department, as well as weights and measures authorities in Great Britain and district councils in Northern Ireland. Money may be spent by enforcement authorities in the exercise of those powers. There is, therefore, a role for the Secretary of State in that respect.
The application of section 34 in part IV of the Consumer Protection Act means that an enforcement authority would be liable to pay compensation in certain circumstances in respect of the seizure and detention of goods. Money would be required to meet any such liability. I do not wish to go into tedious detail, but those points begin to illustrate the powers of local authorities, trading standards departments and the Secretary of State and the necessity, where appropriate, to pay compensation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne asked the reasonable question: at this stage in our deliberations, how do we estimate the costs? I cannot give a definive answer. I suggested earlier that one could make only a best estimate, given our experience in these matters. I can say no more than that the figure in the money resolution is. 855 appropriate. This complicated Bill introduces major new duties, powers and responsibilities. We are therefore entitled to be a little wary of the money resolution.
The further payments provided by Parliament under the money resolution encompass
- "(i) any expenses incurred or compensation payable by a Minister of the Crown or Government department in consequence of the application by the Act, in relation to its enforcement, of Part IV of the Consumer Protection Act 1987, and
- (ii) any increase attributable to the Act in consequence of such application in the sums payable out of such money under any other Act; and(b) the payment of sums into the Consolidated Fund.This is necessary to deal with the situation that would arise as a result of the application of section 35 in part IV of the Consumer Protection Act, under which an enforcement authority may, in certain circumstances, recover the expenses of enforcement. If it does so, the money recovered is required to be paid into the Consolidated Fund. No one has yet touched on that rather interesting provision, but we may want to return to it if we give the Bill greater scrutiny.
I have tried to set out in simple terms the basis on which the Committee may want to proceed in considering the relationship between clause 12 and the money resolution. I hope that I have helped the Committee. If other matters arise, I may seek to catch your eye again, Miss Boothroyd.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Bill reported, with amendments; as amended (in Committee and on recommittal), considered.
That the Bill, as amended, be considered in the following order, namely: Amendments to Clauses, Amendments to Schedules and New Clauses.—[Mr. Martyn Jones.]
§ Mr. Martyn Jones
I beg to move amendment No. 133 in page 1, leave out from line 5 to line 10 on page 10.
I understand that with this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 134, in page 15, leave out from line 2 to line 20.
The amendments would delete all the consumer guarantee provisions of the Bill, leaving only the Law Commission's proposals on the Sale of Goods Act 1979. I have tabled them with considerable regret but, faced with insuperable opposition and deliberate blocking tactics, I felt that there was no alternative. I see no point in hearing the Bill talked out in such artificially engineered circumstances. Most of the other amendments have been drafted by the Government or the Department, and the message must be clear: it is not that what I sought to achieve cannot be done; it is that the Government do not want it to be done.
The Minister's assurances that he will look again at guarantees will be examined for action at an early date. It is as if the Minister is deliberately snubbing his predecessor, Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes who instigated the review that led to the Bill. It appears that he is snubbing the National Consumer Council a body whose members are appointed by the Secretary of State. It is as if he is snubbing the numerous Conservative Members who have given me much welcome and strong support and 856 disregarding the views of many of his hon. Friends. I am afraid that he is also snubbing the House. He did not vote against the Bill on Second Reading—indeed, no hon. Member voted against the principle of the Bill. He neither moved nor supported a single amendment in Committee and he has tabled not one amendment for debate today. That is either because those amendments in the names of other Conservative Members emanate from his Department or because his Department is indolent. The title, "The Department of Indolence" would suit the Department better than its present title "The Department for enterprise".
The Department sets the examples for business that the Government want to set. Nothing could be clearer than its failure to support the Bikwhich would provide a voluntary guarantee—a statement made by business about the quality of its protect, which would encourage competition and benefit business as well as the consumer.
What is left in the Bill—the implementation of the Law Commission's proposals—has some value, especially to Scotland. For the rest, the people of this country will simply have to put up with shoddy goods and lousy service for another 18 months or so. Then this Bill—or, rather a similar Bill—will be re-introduced, becathc a Labour Government will be strong on substance, not on form, and strong on rights, not on words.
§ Mr. Squire
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Are we discussing only amendments Nos. 133 and 134, or are we discussing all the amendments?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)
We are discussing amendment No. 133 with amendment No. 134.
§ Mr. Viggers
This is rather confusing. The promoter of the Bill said that he was moving amendment No. 133 but we are actually discussing new clauses 1 to 3, amendments No. 133 and 134, all other amendments to parts Ito IV of the Bill, all amendments to clauses 16 to 23, except for amendment No. 4, and all amendments to schedules 1 to 4. As I understand it, that is the selection. That means that we are discussing the whole range of the first batch of amendments as selected by Mr. Speaker, which covers the whole Bill.
I regret the situation in which we find ourselves. I made my position absolutely clear at the very beginning on 26 January, when I was the first person to intervene in the speech of the promoter of the Bill to point out that I thought that he was being over-ambitious and that schedule 2 was too widely drafted. I drew his attention to the fact that serious concern had been expressed by a number of people who felt that as the schedule was so widely drafted, it would catch areas for which there had not been proper consultation, and damage would be caused. On 26 January, I made my position clear.
§ Mr. Viggers
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is probably the world's greatest expert at wrecking private Members' Bills.
§ Mr. Bennett
I make no apology for the fact that on occasions I filibuster in the House, but I always make clear what I am trying to do. I object to Conservative Members claiming that they are in favour of a Bill while busily trying to talk it out. It seems that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends who have been filibustering have achieved what they wanted: my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) has tabled amendments that would delete most of the Bill. Surely the kind thing to do would be to sit down and let us have a vote. The hon. Gentleman is speaking in support of what the promoter is being forced to do by these filibustering tactics. The hon. Gentleman has go what he wants, and it shows ill grace to destroy the Bill. He will not even allow the last bit of the Bill to be put to the vote.
§ Mr. Viggers
I am not normally regarded as someone who takes more time than is necessary to make a speech. I spoke for only nine minutes this morning. The hon. Gentleman asks me to explain my position. On the basis of my study of the Bill, I would have been content to see it proceed, provided it contained my amendments Nos. 78, 79 and 80, which reduce the scope of appendix 2, and amendments Nos. 72 and 73, which deal with the powers of the Secretary of State to extend appendix 2. However, on further study of the Bill, I realised how wide-ranging it would be and how seriously it would affect existing trading arrangements.
During the debate on clause 12, we talked about the cost of the Bill to the taxpayer. It has been said that the Government are good at providing obligations but not very good at providing the resources to meet them. I should like to expand on obligations elsewhere, but, in order to make progress 1 shall not do that.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Amendment made: No. 134, in page 15, leave out from line 2 to line 20.—[Mr. Dorrell.]
§ Order for Third Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.2.21 pm
§ Mr. Forth
We have now arrived at the stage at which I had hoped we would arrive, and that gives me some cause for encouragement. We have given careful thought to the Bill, not only on Second Reading and in Committee but during today's debate. We have been in and out of Committee today, which is an unusual procedure, and with the co-operation of the promoter of the Bill and other hon. Members, we now have a Bill that I can recommend to the House.
I shall explain briefly why that is the case. Throughout the passage of the Bill, Opposition Members have asked about my position. I hope that the Bill's promoter will agree that I have always made my position and that of my Department and the Government quite clear.
§ Mr. Forth
I hope that the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) will have a quiet word with the promoter, who I am sure will confirm what I am about to say. The hon. Member for Clwyd South-West (Mr. Jones) came to see me at the outset and asked me about my attitude to the Bill. I said that I could not support it in the form in which he brought it to me. We have discussed the part of the Bill 858 which is now before the House, and as a result of deleting parts I to IV, the Bill now consists only of part V. I recommend it to the House.
I told the Bill's promoter that it would be good for consumers if he could see fit to promote such a Bill. Subsequently, there have been other consultations and conversations between me and the promoter and representatives of the National Consumer Council. Those consultations took place at all stages of the Bill, when thought was being given to what sort of Bill the Government could support. Opposition Members have taxed me on this matter again and again. I have always made it clear that the Government had serious reservations about parts I to IV. The reasons for that related to the principle and, even more important, to the practice. On more than one occasion—I think on Second Reading and in Committee—I said that the Bill was irredeemable and unworkable in the form in which it existed. I should say—I hope that I am not divulging any great confidences of Government or relations between Ministers and officials——
§ Mr. Wilshire
My hon. Friend has returned to a point that he made some time ago. It is that the Bill, as it stood, was unworkable. Does he agree that with the change that has been made, it is eminently workable and eminently sensible? Does not that prove that those of us who have had to receive a huge amount of criticism and attack for wasting time have been vindicated for having fought throughout for the objectives of better service, better products and better competition? Have not we been proved to be right and to be the people who really care? Does my hon. Friend agree that common sense has finally broken through?
§ Mr. Forth
I should not want to go down that road with my hon. Friend.
I welcome the co-operative spirit of the promoter, the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones). I believe that if he supports the Third Reading of the Bill, as I urge my hon. Friends to do, we shall have a Bill in the name of the hon. Gentleman that will do a great deal for consumers and advance consumer law considerably. I beg my hon. Friends and Opposition Members to support the Bill's Third Reading.
§ Mr. Nigel Griffiths
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones). His stalwart efforts have done more than any of those expended by others in recent times to highlight the problems that consumers are facing. He gave consumers some considerable hope. It is a tragedy that we are left only with part V. I know that it was not his wish—it was certainly not the wish of the Labour party—that we should be left only with that. I pay tribute to hon. Members on both sides of the House for the support they have given my hon. Friend and the Bill, and I know that they will be equally disappointed.
I have with me a file which contains more than 100 letters, many of which provoke considerable soul-searching. I am sure that the Minister would agree with me if he were to read them. The file contains letters from disabled people who cannot obtain suitable replacements for the new goods which they bought. The Bill in its entirety would have entitled them to justice in the first year 859 —to a replacement if the product was out of commission for two or four days, depending on significance, and to a replacement if it was out of action for more than 21 days.
It is terrible that neither the Minister nor the Government could accept those modest provisions. It is sad that they have done so much damage to consumer affairs by not accepting the Bill in its entirety. They could find it in their hearts only to accept a small part of the Bill. I welcome the small part that has been accepted. The next Labour Government will seek to introduce provisions to cover the original Bill.
§ Mr. Martyn Jones
As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) said, the Bill before us is not the one that I hoped to see. I hoped that the many consumers who suffer from shoddy goods, including Friday afternoon motor cars and tea-break washing machines, would have some protection, some guarantee in law. I regarded that as necessary to improve product control in British industry. I sought to set out in legislation the facts of a guarantee, the sort of guarantee that consumers would like to have for refunds or replacements. The Minister has said that he will continue to examine guarantees, and I hope that he will do so. I shall continue to press for that examination and for legislation. I believe that we shall see relevant legislation at the Minister's behest, at that of the European Community or as a result of the action of the next Government, which will be a Labour Government.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.